Outlines are not a torture device created by the devil

I have one word for you, and it’s a word dreaded to every student of English ever: outline. In high school, I hated this word. It meant long hours in front of my computer, trying to remember if “A” came before “I” or was it “1”? All I knew was that “a” came last. But what happened if you needed a sub entry under your sub-sub entry? Did you just make up a symbol? Who in God’s name invented this torture device known as an outline?! What was worse, I had very strict (but amazing in hindsight) English teachers that would mark down your outline if it wasn’t in the correct form, and you know, readable (some of my outlines even had to be turned in hand written in pen! THE TORTURE!)

This whole idea of an outline infuriated me while I was in high school. If it was supposed to be part of a planning exercise, why did it have to be so tedious? Sorry, my mind doesn’t work around a I, A, 1, a , – structure (yeah I still remember it, because it’s been hammered into my BRAIN). I ended up writing an outline of my outline, essentially– writing down my ideas, and then collecting them and putting them into a format that only teachers really cared about. It wasn’t until I started writing longer narratives that I realized how freaking handy those horrid outlines were when it came to plotting events. You can set up turns, have notes to yourself about what will be happening behind the scenes during events, and so on. When making an outline for reports and the like, and if you break it down all the way to the sub-sub levels, you pretty much write your entire paper before writing your paper. The thought of writing your novel before writing your novel might seem a bit daunting when you are planning a 3000 page epic, so I’m not asking that. You just need to break down what will happen in your plot into basic events (or story beats), and the cause/effect of those events. Yes, a cause/effect. What do I mean? Every event in your story could be caused by another event in your story. Likewise, every event should create an effect on how the story is progressing. Cause and effect. This is what drives a good narrative. I cannot stress enough that what makes an outline effective is not having the perfect form. You can use dashes, stars, stickers, whatever your little heart desires (take that English teachers!)! You just need to make sure that each even has a cause and effect!

What am I talking about? Well, there’s a really good writing studio video out there by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) that I found via FILMCRITHULK. Whatever you may think about Parker and Stone’s products, they have a great philosophy when it comes to their story structure. It all comes down to breaking down what happens in the plot. They come up with the basis and a starting point and break the story down into narrative beats. Each narrative beat must be able to be read with “therefore” or “but,” not “and then.” The “therefore” and “but” gives consequences to each action, each consequence stacks on top of the other, building the stakes of the story while driving the plot forward. A cause and effect. This also makes the audience care, because there are real stakes. Whilst the “and then and then and then” method of story telling gets overblown and loses focus. Think of when you are telling a story to friends, or better yet, think of a six-year old telling a story. Every sentence starts with “and then, and then” and always ends up being the most bizarre, unfocused thing; where you’re not really sure what the point is, or why they have decided to tell you this. Most of the movies that Hollywood makes these days rely on “and then” and that’s why they can meander and be kind of not good. The good ones use “therefore” and “but.” Try to apply it to some stories you like, you’ll see what I mean.

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